The first in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the White House Chiefs of Staff, whose actions–and inactions–have defined the course of our country.
What do Dick Cheney and Rahm Emanuel have in common? Aside from polarizing personalities, both served as chief of staff to the president of the United States–as did Donald Rumsfeld, Leon Panetta, and a relative handful of others. The chiefs of staff, often referred to as “the gatekeepers,” wield tremendous power in Washington and beyond; they decide who is allowed to see the president, negotiate with Congress to push POTUS’s agenda, and–most crucially–enjoy unparalleled access to the leader of the free world. Each chief can make or break an administration, and each president reveals himself by the chief he picks.
Through extensive, intimate interviews with all seventeen living chiefs and two former presidents, award-winning journalist and producer Chris Whipple pulls back the curtain on this unique fraternity. In doing so, he revises our understanding of presidential history, showing us how James Baker’s expert managing of the White House, the press, and Capitol Hill paved the way for the Reagan Revolution–and, conversely, how Watergate, the Iraq War, and even the bungled Obamacare rollout might have been prevented by a more effective chief.
Filled with shrewd analysis and never-before-reported details, The Gatekeepers offers an essential portrait of the toughest job in Washington.
I was going to begin this review by stating that there are some books that should be read by certain college/university majors and that this is one that should definitely be read by political science majors. While I still think this should be an essential read for political science majors, approaching the review in that manner isn’t me or my personality. So, without further fanfare, here is what I seriously think about this book.
Upon first reading the title, I immediately thought of the Gatekeeper for the Emerald City – to the Wizard of Oz, whose job/duty was to prevent unsavory characters from entering the city and meeting with the wizard. In a sense, this thought is correct – but in another, it was completely wrong. These gatekeepers don’t want to keep the Wizard/President from being seen or talked with, they instead want to help the President achieve the goals he set up to better the country. However, they also differ in the difficulty faced by those who hold the position of Chiefs of Staff or Gatekeepers if you prefer, while also showing the amount of influence, or if you’d prefer the effect, they have over the President and World events.
The author opens by mentioning a meeting held December 5, 2008 to assist the incoming chiefs of staff for the newly elected 44th President, Barack Obama. The description of this meeting serves to show just how difficult, how important the job of the Chiefs of Staff is – how they affect History. Emphasis is placed on the amount of political knowledge at the meeting, the amount of history, but each person (each male) in attendance only gives the incoming Chiefs of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, a single piece of advice.
I pictured this meeting as a combination slumber party/answer to that age-old question about inviting anyone from history to dinner, with the catch of you can only ask each guest a single question. Just imagine having dinner with Nikola Tesla, Adolph Hitler, Anne Frank, etc. and knowing that the knowledge you receive from them could possibly affect the entire world. The amount of stress, anxiety that one would have before, during, and after this event would be astronomical. The fear that you would interpret something that they told you in the wrong manner and cause the end of the world – or the person who you’re discussing this advice would interpret it wrong. Now, imagine the person receiving this advice is more than likely an upper-middle class, Caucasian male – do you still feel good about your odds? What if you knew that the person they were discussing the advice with was indirectly responsible for the lives of over 300 million people, and that you have virtually no say over who influences this person?
Now, I don’t know about you – but the thought of this scares me more than a little bit. This is a situation that as citizens of the United States we face every four years when we elect a new President and sometimes a President changes his Chiefs of Staff while still in Office – we choose who is the visible representation of our country, but we don’t have a say over the person who “is the president’s closest adviser and who the president depends on to execute their agenda.” This person is neither elected nor confirmed, serves at the whim of the president, and their entire job, security, and all rests solely with the president.
Can I just begin by admitting that I didn’t pay much attention to the first two or three chapters? This is mainly because while I understand the importance of learning history so that we aren’t doomed to repeat it, I still find it more interesting if I were alive during the events in question. It helps to know how others who were more connected to the event reacted to what had happened – outside of what the media tells the public. This particular chapter discusses the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, and the subsequent Watergate scandal. It shows how Nixon’s Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman allowed Watergate to happen because he was unable to tell Nixon the truth – that the taping of certain conversations should not have happened, that what he was asking to be done was not constitutionally permitted. One is left with the question of whether or not Haldeman performed his job well, and according to Donald Rumsfeld, he “executed the President’s desires, a little too well.” Despite this fact, the format for being Chief of Staff is based on Haldeman and what he did.
Then we come to what happens when a President resigns, and a woefully unprepared Vice-President suddenly becomes President. In fact, Gerald Ford wasn’t even Nixon’s first choice for his Vice-President…he wasn’t even the second choice. He became Vice-President due to the first Vice-President resigning due to a bribery scandal, and Nixon’s needing someone who could be confirmed without a fight. As a result of his being both popular and uncontroversial, he became Vice-President. So, Gerald Ford became known as the “accidental president” on 9 August 1974.
Being president of the United States is a stressful and difficult job during good times, but Ford faced a set of daunting challenges: the Soviet Union was inciting communist insurgencies around the world; Congress was hostile; the press was both cynical and emboldened, and South Vietnam was on the brink of collapse. He had to deal with all of these problems with a team of people who were virtually strangers. Rumsfeld compared it to being on an airplane and having to take control when it was headed straight for the ground, while not knowing the crew. Ford responded to this by stating the majority of the staff would remain the same – minus Haldeman who was off to jail, and Haldeman’s successor General Alexander Haig would become Chiefs of Staff.
The best description of Ford’s White House would be a kid’s soccer game – where everyone is running after the ball, and no one knew what they are doing. Everyone involved expected to have full access to the President at any given moment, that they would all report to the President, also known as the spokes of the wheel. Rumsfeld had no problem with letting Ford know that this was fine for a Minority Leader in the House of Representatives, but wouldn’t work for the President of the United States. At first, Ford decided to run the office his way – and Rumsfeld went back to his post as ambassador to NATO.
This decision was reversed when the following events happened – Ford made the decision to pardon Richard Nixon, and his approval rating plunged to 49 percent – down from 71 percent. They also learned that his wife, Betty Ford, had breast cancer and would have to undergo a radical mastectomy. Ford discovered that Haig was ineffective and that he would have to choose a new Chiefs of Staff. He chose Donald Rumsfeld, whom he called at his father’s funeral in Illinois.
Now, of course, we’re reaching the Carter years, which are the years that I was actually alive…or rather I was an infant. I found everything after this a bit more interesting – mainly due to the fact that I feel history is a bit more interesting if you’re alive while it’s happening. I went through the Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama years relatively quickly as they were a basic review and refresh of events that I vaguely remembered.
Overall, The Gatekeepers by Chris Whipple was a very well-written, informative nonfiction book – the author did an excellent job of making the scenarios seem as if they were currently happening, and making you realize that every action and reaction of the President and his/her advisers have on the world around us. I would like to thank Blogging for Books for sending me a complimentary copy of this book, and that I was not compensated in a monetary value for this review. I would also like to say that I promise to get better at these – and I will hopefully be able to get the UBB plugin before my next review.